Hateful Conduct in Libraries: Supporting Library Workers and Patrons

Home | Proactive PreparationResponding to an IncidentMeeting Community Needs | Special Considerations & Resources
What prompted the need for this document? | Assistance and Consultation | Definitions


What prompted the need for this document?

After the 2016 elections, there was a spike in reported hate crimes in American libraries. Consequently, questions about hate speech, the First Amendment, and patron behavior in the library are escalating. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services have prepared this resource to provide additional guidance for librarians struggling with issues of hate and intolerance.

This resource focuses on public libraries, academia, and schools. Although private institutions are not held to the legal requirements of the First Amendment, the principles of free expression and respect are encouraged. Unique aspects to consider for each setting are outlined in the “Special Considerations” section of the document.

“A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.”
— Article V, Library Bill of Rights

This statement from the Library Bill of Rights establishes equal access for all as a fundamental user right. However, it is important to recognize that historical inequities, microaggressions, power, and privilege (white privilege, gender privilege, able-bodied privilege, etc.) impact library spaces every day. This may play out as negative bias in policies, access, or direct interactions with people of color, immigrants, refugees, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) communities. Creating an inclusive space requires ongoing education, discussions, and development for library staff and the communities served.

This guide can be used by libraries as they initiate conversations among staff members and within their communities. The guide is divided into three sections:

  1. Proactive Preparation (What strategic steps can I take to prepare in the event hateful conduct situations occur within the library?)
  2. Responding to an Incident (What do I do if hateful conduct is directed at me, a colleague, or a patron, and how do I follow-up?)
  3. Meeting Community Needs (How do I balance access to all viewpoints while also identifying and supporting historically marginalized perspectives?)

Each section begins with a list of questions received by the ALA related to hateful conduct and free speech, followed by statements to consider before, during, and after a hateful incident. Each section ends with suggestions on how to support library staff and patrons. This document should not be construed as legal advice but may provide insight as to when a library may need to seek legal advice or consult law enforcement. If legal advice or expert assistance is required, you or your library should seek the services of a competent legal professional. 

A note on language: Throughout this document, we use the term “historically marginalized” to refer to communities that have and continue to experience oppression within the United States context. We recognize it as an imperfect term, and chose to use it over others as we felt it best highlights the active role institutions, including libraries at times, have played in upholding injustice. As language evolves and laws change, this document will continue to be updated. This resource is not meant to provide advice for every incident that can arise — as situations and reactions differ based on each unique community and its members — but it is a starting point to initiate discussions in all types of libraries.


Assistance and Consultation

The staff of the Office for Intellectual Freedom and the Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services are available to answer questions or provide assistance to librarians, trustees, and educators about workplace speech, patron behavior, hate crimes, and responding to hate speech or hateful conduct. Areas of assistance include policy development and staff training. Inquiries can be directed via email to diversity@ala.org, oif@ala.org, or via phone at 1-800-545-2433.



The following section provides definitions and context for important terms pertaining to hateful conduct, equity, diversity, and inclusion. It also provides an introduction to the legal framework surrounding hateful conduct. This is not a comprehensive list. It is intended to provide a baseline for terminology and concepts discussed later in the document. 


Diversity can be defined as the sum of the ways that people are both alike and different. Visible diversity is generally those attributes or characteristics that are external. However, diversity goes beyond the external to internal characteristics that we choose to define as “invisible” diversity. Invisible diversity includes those characteristics and attributes that are not readily seen. When we recognize, value, and embrace diversity, we are recognizing, valuing, and embracing the uniqueness of each individual.


Equity is not the same as formal equality. Formal equality implies sameness. Equity, on the other hand, assumes difference and takes difference into account to ensure a fair process and, ultimately, a fair (or equitable) outcome. Equity recognizes that some groups were (and are) disadvantaged in accessing educational and employment opportunities and are, therefore, underrepresented or marginalized in many organizations and institutions. The effects of that exclusion often linger systemically within organizational policies, practices, and procedures. Equity, therefore, means increasing diversity by ameliorating conditions of disadvantaged groups.


Harassment is unwanted, unwelcomed, and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens, or offends the victim. Harassment can take on many forms and have serious repercussions. Generally, harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.” An example of this would be if a patron was called a derogatory comment by another patron. The complexities and repercussions of harassment can occur in the library and take place between the staff, patrons and staff, and between patrons. 

Criminal harassment is governed by state law and defined as a course of conduct which annoys, threatens, intimidates, alarms, or puts a person in fear of their safety. 

Hate Crime

Hate crime is more than speech; it is criminal behavior or criminal acts motivated by prejudice. For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Hate crimes, which can also encompass a person’s color or national origin, are overt acts that can include violence against persons or property, violation of civil rights, conspiracy, certain “true threats,” and acts of intimidation. The Supreme Court has upheld laws that either criminalize these acts or impose a harsher punishment when it can be proven that the defendant targeted the victim because of the victim's race, ethnicity, identity, or beliefs. 

A hate crime doesn’t just impact one person or object; a hate crime can affect the entire community and create an atmosphere of animosity and alienation. Examples of hate crimes include the vandalizing of a library bathroom stall with swastikas, or the defacing of a library book about LGBTQ+ issues.

Hate Speech

Hate speech doesn’t have a legal definition under U.S. law, just as there is no legal definition for rudeness, evil ideas, unpatriotic speech, or any other kind of speech that people might condemn. However, hate speech is defined in “Free Speech and the Development of Liberal Virtues” as “any form of expression through which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred against a group or a class of persons.” 

In the United States (and in contrast to many European countries and Canada), hate speech — whether it occurs as spoken language within the library, in print, online, or any other library format — has substantial protection under the First Amendment. While there are several categories of speech that are unprotected under the First Amendment, hateful speech is not among them. 

Hateful Conduct

Hateful conduct promotes intimidation and hate against people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease. For the purposes of this document, hateful conduct is more than a statement; it can be ongoing and behavioral. Hateful conduct often does not meet the criteria of criminal harassment or stalking statutes. 

The following visual includes examples meant to help discern distinctions among hate speech, hateful conduct, and hate crimes, highlighting their escalation.

Hate Speech Hateful Conduct Hate Crime
Using a written or verbal insult or slur about a specific person based on hate, e.g., “All [racial, ethnic, or gender slur] are criminals.” Posting flyers with symbols identified with a group or movement targeting persons because of their race, ethnicity, gender or gender identity; positioning toys or materials into hate symbols or threatening acts; leaving pamphlets that promote hate groups and hate speech in the pages of books Vandalizing books or walls with symbols associated with a hate movement; physical assault, or unwanted physical contact, directed toward a person because of their race, religion, belief, sexual orientation, or other identities


Inclusion means an environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully; are valued for their distinctive skills, experiences, and perspectives; have equal access to resources and opportunities, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.


I​ntersectionality refers to the ways in which multiple identities, and systems of oppression, combine and overlap in marginalized communities’ lived experiences. The term was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her 1989 essay and is used to highlight the ways in which gender, race, ability, and other systems cannot be explored in a vacuum from one another. 


Marginalization refers to the treatment of a person or group as insignificant, “less-than,” or otherwise second-class. People may hold multiple marginalized identities (see “intersectionality” above) and thus experience compounding barriers. Examples of marginalized identities include people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, refugees and immigrants, and people with disabilities. 


A microaggression is an intentional or unintentional interaction that communicates or reinforces hostile, oppressive, or prejudiced attitudes towards a marginalized group. The term was first coined by Dr. Chester Pierce in the 1970s, and expanded by Dr. Derald Wing Sue et al. in a 2007 article


Oppression may be defined as “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power.” Oppression can occur on various levels via laws that work to keep specific groups in power in which they continue to benefit, media representation or lack thereof, and the erasure of marginalized communities’ history or voices.


Privilege refers to the ways in which those individuals or groups with more power and access benefit, both directly and indirectly, from structures and institutions designed by and for that group, to the detriment of other groups. “Privilege is often invisible to those who have it.”

Social Justice

Social justice refers to both the process and the aim of creating an equitable world. It involves acknowledging oppressive systems and institutions and actively working to dismantle them. The goal is to promote egalitarianism regardless of race, religion, creed, color, sexual orientation, gender identity, and national origin. 


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Updated April 2020